When the Stage Directions Matter

Cinderella wedding

The inspiration for my play, Happily Ever After, came about because I started thinking about the fact that all fairy tales end with the wedding, and so kids who grow up reading them know how to aspire for a wedding, but have no real understanding of what happens next or how to navigate the next 50 years.  The emphasis on courtship over marriage has probably led many couples into a morass, pre-marital counseling notwithstanding.  I had no idea where I was going to go with it, but that was what put my seat in the chair.  What followed wound up being more layered and philosophical than I had anticipated, or even than I knew prior to attending the rehearsal of it.

While watching the rehearsal, I put on my director’s hat, contemplating how I would deal with the issues the director was facing if I was in his shoes.  As a result, I had to analyze my own play in a way that I hadn’t done, and so I learned some interesting things about it!

It was in analyzing the play that I finally figured out why I was uncomfortable with the changes made to the stage directions that end the play.  It turned out that the changes left the audience with two messages that were both in direct contradiction to what I had been trying to say over the course of the play.

Surprising that movement could have such a dramatic effect, huh?

Without reading the play, you may not fully understand why this is, but I’ll give it a stab anyway.

Here’s the original stage directions (remember, this is the continuation of the fairy tale — in this case, Cinderella).  I should say that the dialogue that precedes the stage directions makes it clear that, in the privacy of their bedchambers, the Prince invites her to dance.

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance.  They start to waltz, and one of them — it doesn’t matter who — starts to hum.  Da-de-da.  It doesn’t matter whether the one humming can carry a tune.  It may even be better if they can’t.  Now they are both humming.  They may even laugh at how bad they are, which only emboldens them to sing louder.  As the song goes on, they gradually move closer together.  And eventually, they are kissing.  Not the chaste sort of kiss as at the beginning of the play, but the happily-ever-after sort of kiss.)

Now, here’s the changed version:

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance as an orchestra begins to play.  They waltz a few steps.  She stumbles and nearly falls, but he catches her.  She looks up at him, and there is a spark.  She grabs his head and pulls him to her, planting a firm kiss on his mouth.  He sweeps her into his arms and carries her into the bedroom.)

Without knowing anything about the play, there are five distinct differences between these two descriptions:

  1. In the original, there is no orchestra, or else it is too faint to be heard, and that is why they start humming.  In the revision, we clearly hear the full orchestra.
  2. In the original, there is a shared experience which has nothing to do with kissing or sex (humming while they dance, in a silly sort of moment between two people who barely know each other but are going to be spending their lives together).  In the revision, this is replaced by her stumbling as they waltz.
  3. In the original, the kiss is a gradual melding as they begin to relax together.  In the revision, there is sudden switch that goes off in her head that provokes the kiss.
  4. In the original, the kiss is mutual.  In the revision, she clearly kisses him.
  5. In the original, there is a blackout on the kiss.  In the revision, he whisks her off of her feet and takes her into the bedroom.

Without having the entire play to view it in context, #1 can fairly easily be dismissed as not being critical.

The other four may be critical.  First off, the original seems to emphasize the romantic over the passionate.  Sexual desire is clearly at play in the revision.

Secondly, the original has the shared moment of non-romantic, non-sexual silliness, and the revision doesn’t have a comparable moment.

So what can we take away from this?

Before changing stage directions at the beginning or end of a scene or play, you need to carefully study them in the context of what the playwright was trying to accomplish or is trying to say.  Opening moments set a tone, and closing moments — especially at the end of a play — are the playwright’s final word on the subject.  You want to make sure that you are, up to the end, telling the playwright’s story, and not your own.  Also, when the stage directions are more than the minimal (he doffs his hat and exits), they are effectively substituting for dialogue and so probably deserve a similar fealty, at least in terms of intention.

Understanding the playwright’s intention is critical in changing stage directions that are more than simply practical (she sits down; he pours a drink; they turn out the lights and exit upstairs).  If the director had kept the sexual overtones out of it and found a comparable non-sexual moment to replace the humming and laughter, I might have been disappointed (or not, if he found a better way of accomplishing it than what I wrote), but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it.  He would clearly have gotten the point of what I was trying to say and simply found an alternative way to say the same thing.

I could have written the “la-di-da” into the dialogue, and probably will so that future directors will understand that it is a non-negotiable element of the play.

So here’s my argument for why the changes reversed the intended meaning of the play:

I associate the sexual desire and attraction between a new couple with the fairy tale story; while critical to beginning a happy ending, it is insufficient in and of itself.  Love and friendship are the more important elements.  By removing the humming, you remove the friendship; by dispensing with the gradual, mutual kiss, you remove the love; and in its stead, you’ve got passionate desire on both sides (her kiss, his carting her off to the bed).  A misplaced emphasis on sex has ruined many a marriage, and that was part of why I wrote the play.  When you end on that note, you are saying, “This is a fine way to go about it.”

The director said he chose to have her initiate the kiss because she had been avoiding it up until that point.  That’s fine, but if I wanted that 180 degree turn, I would have written it that way.  Making her the aggressor makes her a very different girl (and him a very different man).  Before you make a 180 degree change, you need to be sure the script supports it.

He also said, “she stumbles and he catches her before she falls, as he will for the rest of their lives”, and it’s a sweet, if traditional concept.  However, it plays into the old-fashioned myth of the fairy tale — the white knight who will come along and save the damsel in distress and make everything perfect forever — that I had spent ten minutes unraveling and arguing was not going to produce a healthy marriage.

So change the stage directions if you have a really good reason to (I’m still not sure why they decided to change mine), but if you must, please make sure that you are being fully faithful to supporting the playwright’s intention and theme.

On Staying in the Moment


Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members.  Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.

“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”

When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.

Also interesting to note:  how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).


Playing Bad Characters: Doubt, Scene 4

doubt jamesScene 4 reveals a number of interesting things about Sister Aloysius:

First, she is tending to plants that need to be protected from the upcoming winter, and which the gardener neglected to do.  She could ask Mr. McGinn to do it, or berate him for not having done it (and perhaps she does, in a scene we never see), but instead, Shanley shows us her doing the caretaking herself.

Yes, it’s fabulous business from the actor’s point of view, but it’s more than that.  Playwrights don’t make arbitrary choices in these matters.  Sister Aloysius’ caring for things that really need caring for is something Shanley wants us to see.

Scene 4 also reveals that Sister Aloysius was once married.  She says little about her husband in the play, other than that he died in WW II.  We are left to surmise the details, but there seems to be a connection between his death and her decision to enter the convent.  It is up to you, as the actor, to decide what that connection is – and unlike the matter of whether or not Jorgy and Bea in Other People’s Money had an affair or didn’t or are living together or not – I think this connection is critical to knowing who Sister Aloysius is and why she acts as she does.  But given so few hints, you probably won’t know the answer until deep into rehearsals.

Shanley also notes in his stage directions in this scene that “Sister Aloysius smiles for the first time.”  Now, I know I’m very fond of ignoring stage directions, but this is one I would have to think long and hard about before tossing it out.  It is very specific and speaks to Sister Aloysius’ general behavior and attitude.  More importantly, it serves the reason Shanley wrote the play to begin with:  to explore the nature of doubt.  In Scene 2, we meet a nun who isn’t particularly likable, who seems judgmental and unfeeling.  In Scene 4, we’re seeing her other side, and it puts us off-balance, which is precisely where Shanley wants us to be.

Still, she’s not yet a sympathetic character – until she starts talking about the relationship between the women and men religious in the Catholic Church as well as her understanding of the people in the parish and why Donald Muller will be hit by some classmate.  All right, she doesn’t suddenly become sympathetic, but she becomes a little more human.  When she explains to Sister James the difficulty of proving what is a hunch on both their parts, the audience starts to move into a place of uncertainty about the main plot line of the play, a move aided by the fact that Sister James has identified precisely what Sister Aloysius suspects, without clear direction from Sister Aloysius.

Has Sister Aloysius subtly manipulated Sister James into suspecting Father Flynn of child abuse?  Perhaps, but only perhaps.  There is inadequate proof in either direction, which is precisely what Shanley wants.  Doubt is, after all, doubt, not certainty.  That means giving the audience the ability to understand a little about what makes the characters tick and why they all perceive the same situation differently, without giving clear evidence as to what actually happened.

Kind of like life.

In my last post on this play, I’ll talk about Father Flynn and how to decide (as an actor) his innocence or guilt.

2015 Actor’s Renaissance Season: Top 5

From an actor at my favorite theater in the world. Given that we’ve been talking about script analysis lately, check out #3 for a good example of how lines in different parts of the script impact each other and how even good, trained actors don’t necessarily see the connections immediately.  This is also an example of Diamond Lines.  Isn’t it funny that you can have Diamond Lines that you somehow completely miss?  It’s a V-8 moment when the penny finally drops, and you are so grateful!  And oh, yes — read the rest of the post, too. Worth your time!


The Actor’s Renaissance Season is an experience unlike any other in the American Theatre, both for the audience and the actors involved in creating it. Eleven actors. Five plays. Three months. Zero directors.

The 2015 Actor’s Renaissance Actors featured these plays:

  1. THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare (1591)
  2. THE ROVER by Aphra Behn (1677)
  3. THE WHITE DEVIL by John Webster (1612)
  4. EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOR by Ben Jonson (1598)
  5. MOTHER BOMBIE by John Lily (1594)

In the Actor’s Renaissance Season, there are two levels of “Staging Conditions” applied to the plays. The first level relates to performance:

  • We perform with the lights on, so you can see other patrons, and the performers can see you
  • We perform in a thrust at the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse, so you can sit right on stage
  • We use cross-gender casting, and all actors plays multiple characters in the same play
  • We…

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Playing Bad Characters: Doubt, Scene 2 (again)

doubt sr aloysiusIn Scene 2, we have the contrast of the older, stern Sr. Aloysius and the younger, enthusiastic Sr. James.  It’s easy to like Sr. James and to frown upon Sr. Aloysius, who seems to be vetoing anything happy.  But let’s look again.

Sr. Aloysius is the principal of the school and has worked there for many years.  Sr. James is a new teacher.  We can fairly say, I think, that as a new teacher, she undoubtedly has things to learn.  Sr. Aloysius is taking the time, in this scene, to mentor her.  Her approach may seem a bit severe at times, but let’s assume that underneath the gruffness is a sincere desire to help Sr. James be a better teacher, so that the children may be better served.

If you disagree with Sr. Aloysius, what you are disagreeing with is what it means “to be a better teacher”, or “what will benefit the children”.  Those are things about which reasonable people can disagree.  But you need to understand how Sr. Aloysius defines these things and, more importantly, why.  What in her background has led her to believe these things?  Has she tried other ways and seen them fail?

What are the things that matter to Sr. Aloysius?  Let’s look at some of her lines:

“Much can be accomplished in sixty minutes.”

“Always the easy way out these days.  What does that teach?  An easy choice today can have its consequence tomorrow.”

“Penmanship is dying all across the country.”

“You favor History and risk swaying the children to value it over their other subjects.  I think this is a mistake.”

“I do not say this to aggrandize myself, but to illustrate the importance of paying attention.”

“What good’s a gift if it’s left in the box?”

“The best teachers do not perform, they cause the students to perform.”

“Good teachers are never content.”

“It is a society which requires constant educational, spiritual, and human vigilance.”

“God gave you a brain and a heart.  The heart is warm, but your wits must be cold.”

“They’re children.  They can talk to each other.  It’s more important they have a fierce moral guardian.  You stand at the door, Sister.  You are the gatekeeper.  If you are vigilant, they will not need to be.”

“I’m sorry I’m not more forthright, but I must be careful not to create something by saying it.”

Take these lines out of the dialogue and forget that Sr. Aloysius is the one saying them.  These are all lines that you can probably either agree with or else understand the thinking behind them.  You may think that an adult ought to be more than a fierce moral guardian to a child, but you can probably get on board with Sr. Aloysius’ view that adults should protect children from anything immoral.

Despite all of the things Sr. Aloysius says that we don’t care for, the play is sprinkled with lines that we can agree with, that show her to be a bit more human than we thought when we first read the play.

The interesting question about Sr. Aloysius is that she is absolutely well-meaning and in some ways absolutely right.  Yet she takes it to an edge that we find unpalatable – she is an extremist in what she believes.  Why?  How has she arrived at this point?  What in her history has brought her to such a rigid, black and white position?

Well, that’s the journey you go on in rehearsal.  Just remember that she, too, has a heart, and that her heart is warm as well.  She knows William London is on a bad path and that she can’t do much to alter it, and it pains her.  She worries that someone will hit Donald Muller because he is black, and that Linda Conte will have sex before she turns 14.  And while she asks Sr. James to help Sr. Veronica because the school can’t afford to lose a teacher, I suspect that she is also worried about Sr. Veronica’s physical well-being as well as her happiness.  Who wants to be shunted away to the old nun’s home?



Playing Bad Characters: Doubt, Scene 2

doubt_1435912cSo let’s take the idea that Sr. Aloysius is not an unredeemable person, but someone who sees her mission as protecting the young children in her care from all harm.

When we first meet her, in Scene 2, it is clear that she is a woman of strong and firm opinions on matters like teaching methods.  You may not agree with those methods, but you need to give thought to why they matter to her.  Why should a teacher showing enthusiasm for a subject be a bad thing for kids to experience?  Why should knowledge be delivered as bitter medicine?  What benefit is derived by this approach?  Because in Sr. Aloysius’ eyes, there is a benefit.  It’s not an arbitrary choice on her part, and it’s not because she’s generally mean.  She sincerely thinks this is best for the kids.

Her advice to Sr. James sounds like severe criticism, but from Sr. Aloysius’ point of view, she is simply trying to help her to be a better teacher.  Sr. Aloysius is an ISTJ in Myers-Briggs’ terminology – she is businesslike and fond of order and tradition.  Part of the attraction of the Catholic Church is that if you want rules and black and white, you can find it there (you can also find the opposite there, even in the 1960s, but if you are attracted by rules, you can certainly find them.)

So for Sr. Aloysius, there is comfort and security in regulations.  If she fears uncertainty – doubt – then her desperate clinging to her set of rules helps quell her fears.

What’s the number one diamond line for Sr. Aloysius?  The final line of the play:  “I have doubts!  I have such doubts!”

So we have a nun who means well and wants to do the best job she can as principal (which means protecting her charges to the utmost), but is scared to death of the grey area and enforces the “Rule of Law” at her school both to protect her charges and to protect herself from the terrifying unknown.

Count both the adjectives and the verbs in that last paragraph.  Notice how I haven’t mentioned words like severe, heartless, unfeeling, mean-spirited, vindictive, vengeful, harsh, etc.?  Instead, I’ve given you motivations that you can use to drive what you do.

The playwright has written lines that have all the severity and mean-spiritedness necessary.  You don’t have to work to add any of that negative emotion to the performance.  The words will take care of that.  Your job, actually, is to do the opposite – to temper the strong language of the play with an emotional life that makes sense and creates a three-dimensional human being instead of a stereotype.

But let’s go back to the script of Scene 2.  Sr. Aloysius calls art class a waste of time.  Play the emotion (“she’s disparaging the arts”) and you play into the stereotype.  But if you stop and think about how someone could justifiably consider the arts a waste of time (what would you replace them with, and what benefit would the students derive from the replacement?), you take just a little bit of negative energy out of that line.

William London, the unruly child in Sr. James’ class, appears to be Sr. Aloysius’ favorite whipping boy, and she seems to be unreasonable, at least at first.  But read page 15 again.  What if Sr. Aloysius’ assessment of William’s life is absolutely spot on?  Forget how she says it, just look at the facts.  Does she become just a little bit more understandable?

More next time . . .

Liking Bad Characters: Doubt, Part 1

Doubt 2“You want me to like this terrible person I am playing?”

Actually, that’s precisely what I want you to do.  Impossible thought it may seem.

In order to get to “like”, you first have to understand her.  I’ve talked about this some in other places, but let’s look at it specifically in terms of people who do terrible things to others.

The director of Doubt (see When Your Character is Very, Very Bad) clearly thinks Sr. Aloysius does terrible things to others.  Let’s look at why she does so.

As always, it comes down to her verb.  At first blush, especially if you don’t like her, Sr. Aloysius’ verb seems to be “to get rid of Father Flynn” or “to expose him as a deviant”.  Of these two choices, the former has more validity to me.  While she certainly wants him to confess, repent, and reform, her bigger concern seems to get him out of the church (as a priest, anyway).

It’s not enough to say “to get rid of Father Flynn” – you have to follow it up with “why?”  She could want to get rid of him because she thinks he is a discredit to the priesthood, because she can’t stand to look at him (his long fingernails turn her stomach), or because she thinks he is taking the parish in a dangerous direction.  All three of those things do come into play in her feelings, I think, and are part of what helps to build a layered interpretation of Sr. Aloysius.

None of them get to the heart of the matter, however, which is this:  She wants to protect Donald Muller and every other boy in her charge from Father Flynn’s predation.

“To protect her charges from rape” is a more positive spin on the situation than “to get rid of Father Flynn” isn’t it?  It’s also more positive than “to get rid of an immoral priest” or “to stop a rapist”.

Why?  Because protecting someone is a positive act; getting rid of, or stopping, someone has a negative tone to it.

If we go with “get rid of Father Flynn”, then if he is guilty of her charges, we’re okay with her actions, even if we don’t necessarily innocent of like her way of going about it.  But if he is innocent of her charges, then her actions are vindictive.  It’s an either/or proposition.  We either approve of her (even if we don’t necessarily like her) or we hate her.

But if we go with “to protect her charges from rape”, we will find her at least somewhat likable (and not merely approve of her) whether Father Flynn is innocent or guilty, because she is motivated by something good – the desire to advocate for and protect all children in her care.

The fact that she is willing to “move away from God” (her words) in order to achieve her goal is, for a religious, a sacrifice of some consequence.  This reveals how high the stakes are for her.  She will do anything to protect innocent children from being defiled and abused.

Does this make her more likable and understandable to you?  I hope so.

Next time, I’ll take you a little deeper into how this choice of verb affects your portrayal of Sr. Aloysius, and how the script supports this perspective.